Inspiration & Creation: Scottsdale’s Arts Scene Sizzles

By  June 06, 2011

Ritzy resorts, year-round golf and outdoor adventures — for many, these are the staples of a Scottsdale vacation. But if that’s all you come for, you’re missing out on experiencing this desert paradise’s thriving arts scene. No, it’s not a mirage — the greater Scottsdale area has become a can’t-miss destination for groundbreaking architecture, world-class art, lively music and innovative cuisine. There’s something here to please all five senses, as I discovered myself on a recent tour of this sun-soaked cityscape.

ARCHITECTURE

In the foothills of Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains stands Taliesin West, the late Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter residence, studio and school. A living testament to the mad genius of America’s most famous and controversial architect, Taliesin West was inspired by the natural shapes and forms of the desert. Wright began construction of this quirky institution in 1937, and continued developing it until his death in 1959 at age 91.

The campus is now home to both the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, an unorthodox school where incoming freshmen are required to sleep in the desert for their first year, either in a tent or a student-built shelter. Guided tours of varying lengths are available for visitors: stops include the 56 x 34 Garden Room (or living room), where Wright and his family would host large gatherings and events; a cabaret theater with near-perfect acoustics; a performing-arts pavilion, and Wright’s drafting room, private office and bedroom.

The exterior walls of Taliesin’s buildings were primarily constructed using a technique called desert masonry. Wright and his students would literally collect stone and sand from the desert, mix it with concrete and then support the rocky composition with wooden frames. A proponent of “organic architecture,” Wright firmly believed that a building should be designed to fit not only the surrounding environment, but also the specific needs of the people living inside of it. To that end, Wright designed his own ergonomic furniture, and employed large windows that offered sweeping desert views and ample sunlight. Jagged angles, slanted roofs, and earthen tones are also common motifs found here. But it’s the notoriously low ceilings that leave most visitors scratching their heads — not to mention bonking them.

A 20-minute drive southwest of Taliesin West is Cosanti, the home and studio of 91-year-old architect and city planner Paolo Soleri, a former student of Wright known for his eco-friendly designs as well as his signature ceramic and bronze wind bells, which dangle and jangle all over the property. Originally from Italy, Soleri is also the founder of Arcosanti, an experimental community under construction in Central Arizona, designed to test Soleri’s theories of “arcology” — essentially, a practice that crosses architecture with ecology and emphasizes conservation of resources.

Guided walking tours of Cosanti can be arranged in advance, and include some fascinating tidbits on Soleri, such as his infamous falling out with Wright. (Believe it or not, it may have had something to do with Soleri borrowing Wright’s car.) Most of the buildings on site were built by Soleri and his proteges using a technique called earth casting, a process that involves sculpting the earth into various shapes, pouring concrete over these forms and then excavating the earth below the dried concrete.

Tour highlights include the Cosanti Gallery, a foundry and ceramics workshop, living spaces, a pool area and several apses, which are half-dome structures designed to provide sunlight or shade depending on the position of the sun. When I visited the foundry on my recent tour, I witnessed local artisans in protective masks carefully pouring hot molten metal into molds that would later become part of a new wind bell creation. The chimes are sold on site and benefit the Cosanti Foundation.

My tour group was also fortunate enough to meet Soleri himself, who happily shared some of his design theories, many of which are based on sociological observations and human behavioral studies. Word of advice: don’t get him started on how America’s obsession with the automobile has impeded better and more resourceful city planning. In 2010, downtown Scottsdale opened the Soleri Bridge, a large pedestrian passage spanning the Arizona Canal, and the first bridge designed by Soleri to ever be constructed.

A third must-see example of radical architecture requires a two-hour drive to beautiful Sedona, Arizona, home to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Roman Catholic church built directly into the city’s red-rock mesas. Envisioned by sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude, another student of Wright, and built in 1956, the church stands over 250 feet tall and appears to be supported by a giant cross rising out of the rocks below. Visitors of all faiths flock here not only for the church itself, but also for the wonderful vantage point it provides of the region’s peaks and buttes, as well as the valley just below.

The church is well worth the side trip to Sedona, especially if you have time to explore the city’s quirky shops, hop on an exciting jeep tour of the rugged rocks, and experience the town’s kooky supernatural culture, which involves everything from UFO sightings to psychic readings to mysterious vortexes in the rocks that supposedly emit positive energy. (Just be sure not to tell the aliens about the vortexes — they’re powerful enough as it is!)

THE FINE ARTS: MUSICAL & VISUAL

When you think of traditional Southwestern music, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a cowboy strumming his six-string, or the pulsing rhythms of a Native American drum. But somewhere in the outskirts of Phoenix, the most comprehensive collection of musical instruments in the entire world waits to be discovered.

Open for just over a year, the Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM, is one of Arizona’s newest and most technologically cutting-edge cultural experiences. The 190,000-square-foot facility hosts a veritable treasure trove of instruments from all over the world, as well as ceremonial masks and costumes. Much of the museum is divided up by continent, with displays featuring each individual country’s indigenous music and instruments.

But what really makes this standout museum a unique experience is its use of wireless technology, which allows visitors wearing special headphones (included in the $15 admission fee) to listen to recordings of native people playing these instruments, simply by stepping into the vicinity of a particular display. Strolling through China might produce the haunting melody of a zither, while passing through Australia produces the sound of a sonorous didgeridoo.

There’s also a room focusing on celebrities and their music — the piano on which John Lennon composed “Imagine” is a particular highlight — and a hands-on section where you can jam to your heart’s content on a variety of instruments. I, myself, tried my hands at a giant gong, classical harp and, of course, the theremin (that weird electronic instrument you hear in a lot of old sci-fi horror movies.) In addition to the exhibits, MIM also offers a gift shop, concert hall, food-service area and a workshop where skilled workers restore instruments in full view of the public.

For those seeking a more local music scene, Scottsdale has plenty of options. One of the more popular spots is the Rusty Spur Saloon in downtown’s Old Town district, a touristy area located on Scottsdale’s original townsite that has retained much of the look and feel of the Old West. Situated in a stretch of stores selling Native American craftwork, cowboy wear, and miniature cactus plants, the Rusty Spur is a good-old-fashioned dive, with decor consisting of mounted animal heads, license plates and thousands of dollar bills that people literally stick to the walls. (Once a year the wall money is removed and given to charity.) The restaurant offers live music seven days a week, and also serves a pretty mean Southwestern beef slider.

Abutting Old Town is Scottsdale’s high-end Arts District, home to over one hundred galleries featuring everything from classical canvas paintings to abstract sculptures to antiques and imported artifacts. Every Thursday night from 7 to 9 p.m. the neighborhood holds an ArtWalk, during which participating galleries stay open late to offer the visiting public live demonstrations and on-site entertainment. (Scottsdale’s free downtown trolley extends its operating hours for the occasion.) Additionally, the nearby Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art offers free admission all day on Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

CULINARY ARTS

After feeding your soul with music and art, it’s time to finally nourish your body. And fortunately for foodies, Downtown Scottsdale’s diverse line-up of restaurants is indisputable proof that Southwestern grub isn’t just chili dogs and salsa.

Among the popular hotspots right now is Cowboy Ciao, a playful establishment that seems to suffer from an identity crisis, with a menu and decor that fuses Southwestern, Italian and global influences. Catering to the adventurous eater, Executive Chef Bernie Kantak dares his patrons to experiment with unusual flavor and texture combinations. Case in point: the signature Stetson chopped salad, a conglomeration of salmon, couscous, arugula, roasted corn, tomatoes, currants, pepitas and Asiago cheese in a pesto buttermilk dressing. By all logic, it shouldn’t work, and yet it does.

The seared scallops, crispy mac ‘n’ cheese and mushroom pan fry dishes are also big winners here. Customers who find the menu overwhelming will simply pass out at the sight of Cowboy Ciao’s 3,200-label wine list, which is also available at Kazimierz World Wine Bar, a laid-back speakeasy hidden behind the restaurant.

Cowboy Ciao’s buzz-worthy sister restaurant FnB (short for Food & Beverage) is equally innovative, while focusing on a smaller menu derived from freshly sourced ingredients. The friendly management here will make you feel like a VIP, and an open kitchen allows you watch Head Chef Charleen Badman’s culinary crew make the magic happen. The roast jidori chicken and lamb tenderloin are currently two of the biggest stars on FnB’s ever-changing, dynamic menu. But be sure to start with the rock shrimp appetizer and the leeks served with mozzarella and a fried egg.

FnB has also turned heads for its bold decision to include only Arizona labels on its wine list. Yes, you read that correctly — Arizona’s soil and climate are, in fact, conducive to winemaking, especially if you travel about two hours north of Scottsdale and follow the Verde Valley Wine Trail that passes through such towns as Sedona and Cottonwood. Custom bus tours of these local vineyards and tasting rooms are available through Detours of Arizona.

And now for dessert: If you’re a fan of Bil Keane’s Family Circus comic strip, you’ll know that the family’s favorite hangout is The Sugar Bowl, a ’50s-era sandwich shop and soda fountain with a pretty-in-pink motif and an ice cream menu to satisfy even the sweetest sweet tooth. Personally, I melted for the Top Hat Sundae, a flaky cream puff ball filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with gooey hot fudge.

The Sugar Bowl, Cowboy Ciao and the aforementioned Rusty Spur are all destinations on the “Taste of Old Town Scottsdale” walking food tour, a three-hour jaunt ($42 per ticket) organized by Arizona Food Tours, during which participants learn about the downtown area’s restaurant scene as well as its history. There are actually two different versions of this tour, each with its own unique and delicious itinerary. (Fair warning: two of the stops on each tour consist of wine and olive oil tastings, which you might not expect on a food tour.)

It was on this tour that I learned how U.S. Army Chaplain Winfield Scott founded Scottsdale in 1894, shortly after purchasing an undeveloped parcel of desert land for a mere $3.50 per acre. A genuine real-estate pioneer, Scott saw great potential in this region at a time when many others did not. Over a century later, Scottsdale’s potential has been realized in many ways, not the least of which is the artistic and cultural conversation piece this city has become.